I had the opportunity to go to a talk by one of my favorite authors this week. In the Rare Books Room at The Strand, Ken Liu talked about his new short story collection, the art of translating, and the process of crafting sci-fi and fantasy worlds.
Worldbuilding, as the process is called, is a fundamental part of any work of fiction — particularly genre work that takes place in a world not quite like our own. You can’t just say “there are wizards” and call it a day since the reader (or viewer or player) probably won’t have much of an idea as to what that entails. What kind of world is it?
Though the idea of worldbuilding gets thrown around a lot with regards to science fiction and fantasy, it’s present in any work. Maycomb, Alabama of To Kill A Mockingbird is a very specific place and so needs to be developed thus. It might not need a firm idea of how faster-than-light travel works, but we still need to have a firm grasp of what Maycomb is like. For a reader who’s never left Liverpool, it may as well be another world. When people say that Harper Lee really brought Maycomb to life, what they mean is she did some topnotch worldbuilding.
Even landmark places like New York need worldbuilding. Sure, everyone knows something about the city by cultural osmosis, but there’s always gonna be the question of which New York we’re dealing with. Is it the grungy one of Taxi Driver? The one rife with adventure J exists in Men In Black? The one that you see in How I Met Your Mother or the one in Spider-Man Homecoming? You still have to create the city so the audience knows what they’re dealing with.
Granted, it’s definitely easier to create a town in Alabama than to weave Middle-earth from the air. Worldbuilding an entirely imaginary place takes work, in part due to having to take the audience on the leap past reality with you. Middle-earth isn’t real, but Tolkien made it feel real.
During his talk, Ken Liu described it instead as ‘world conjuring’ (a term he borrowed from writer Jo Walton). The distinction is that building implies making something concrete for others to see, whereas conjuring belies the act of weaving something out of nothing; it might not be perfectly solid, but like an image in the smoke it’s there.
Reading — and really most forms of storytelling — is a collaborative process between the author and the reader. The author throws up characters and concepts, and it’s up to the reader to engage with it. The Lord of The Rings won’t land for you if you find elves and dwarves to be hokey nonsense. The mindset behind world conjuring is to lean into that when it comes to creating your world; not everything needs to be spelled out, let the reader fill in the gaps. After all, whatever they come up with will most likely be cooler for them than whatever you could prescribe.
Star Wars conjures up an amazing world. There are so many ideas thrown out with little explanation that aren’t vital for the story but clue the audience into the existence of a world out there. Ben Kenobi fought in the Clone Wars. Threepio frets about the Spice Mines of Kessel. The Imperial Senate has been dissolved. These are small details that conjure up images in the viewer’s head of a world far bigger than what is being shown on screen, and it all seems a little more real.
Worldbuilding is no mean feat. It requires a tremendous amount of imagination and logic to come up with it and keep it all straight. The idea behind world conjuring allows for the onus of creation to be shared between two imaginations, and the world produced the combined result. It requires the creator to share ownership of their world with the reader, and in so doing invite them in. Conjure up enough of an image and the reader will fill in their blanks as they will, and in so doing make the fictional real.